My Tips for Writing Essays Part 3: Mining for Sources

4 min read

In the last part of this blog series on my best essay writing tips, I talked about KISS

Many students get stressed out about finding quality sources to cite for their papers. Most professors set some arbitrary number of sources and demand that you obtain them, like a really boring side-quest in a video game. You’ve probably had to sit through an utterly agonizing tutorial about how to access and then search databases like Proquest, EBSCO, or JSTOR, since every university in the world has made this as counterintuitive, frustrating, and time-sucking as possible. But if you’re following my “KISS” philosophy, just go mining. What do I mean by that? 

Mining Wikipedia for Sources

When it comes to essay writing, one of the best things you can do is mine Wikipedia for sources. By looking at the sources that Wikipedia cites on a topic, you can quickly and easily find high-quality, reliable information. Once you have a few sources, if you need or want more info, turn to the sources your sources cited. This way, you know you are citing reliable information. It can also help you understand how the conversation about this topic evolved or changed.

I know you’re probably horrified that I’m even suggesting Wikipedia, but I’m not saying to use Wikipedia, itself, to write your paper. I’m not even saying to use every single source you find cited on there. I’m saying to use the following workflow: Find the Wikipedia article on your topic. Then go to the “References” section. Then start with those resources. Only use the good ones. Most Wikipedia articles are decently researched and cited, and finding them is a lot easier than whatever torturous process of logins and re-logins your university’s library has set up for searching academic articles. (If you run into trouble finding the actual sources, tune in for my next blog post, when we talk about how to find articles and sources)

By using this workflow, you can be fairly sure that you are citing reliable information. And by understanding how the conversation about your topic evolved or changed, you can get a deeper understanding of the topic itself. 

Mining the Readings

Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to Wikipedia, and sometimes the cited sources are exactly what your professors warned you about. Then what? Your class has probably assigned readings at some point. If you are writing an essay on a topic that’s been covered in your class, go right to those sources (Your prof probably wants you to anyway). But start at the end and read their bibliographies. Look closely for what those readings cite to support various ideas, if you’re working with them. You will probably find two basic kinds of sources: Specific facts, and big ideas or theories. Try to stick with no more than 1-2 “big ideas” per essay. 

Mining your Sources

What if you’ve mined Wikipedia and your class readings and still need a few more sources before you hit whatever magic number your professor assigned? Then you should engage in some second-level mining. Mine your sources for additional sources! If you are looking for more sources to use for your essay, you can look in the bibliographies of the books and articles you have already found. This will help you find more reliable and credible information to use in your essay. Just like with the class readings you’ve already mined, you’ll probably find a combination of factual and theoretical sources. Take the best of these and add them to your citation manager. 

Mining Wikipedia and other sources for information can be a great way to ensure that you are citing reliable, credible information in your essays. By looking at the sources cited on Wikipedia articles, you can quickly find high-quality resources. If you need or want more information, turn to the sources your sources cited. This will help you understand how the conversation about your topic evolved or changed. Additionally, mining your class readings and sources for additional sources before hitting your professor’s assigned number of sources can help make sure that you’re using only the best information possible in your essay – or at least, the information your professor thinks is best. 

Tune in next time to learn about how to find sources. 

For more essay writing tips and help, reach out to Unemployed Professors.

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